Tensions animate this memoir of a happy Mennonite girlhood.

 Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World by Shirley Hershey Showalter. Herald Press, 271 pp.

The sheltered life can be a daring life as well. For all serious daring starts from within.— the epigraph for Blush, taken from Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings

Blush by Shirley Showalter

Though Shirley means “bright meadow,” fitting for a “plain” (Mennonite) girl growing up in the 1950s and ’60s on a Pennsylvania dairy farm, Shirley Hershey Showalter was actually named after Shirley Temple. The divided roots of her first name epitomize the tensions that animate her memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

Showalter’s faith community both nurtured and frustrated her as she sought to reconcile its conservative values with her desire for gaudier self-expression. Caught between her plain church and the glittering world, in her discomfort Showalter often blushed. The depiction in the life of a fortunate Mennonite girl of this everlasting human conflict, essentially between communal obligation and individual desire, is what makes her story both universal and timeless.

Showalter has said her riskiest words in Blush are its first:

Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential. I wanted to be seen and listened to. I wanted to make a splash in the world.

Indeed she has. Although it covers her first eighteen years, Blush indicates how Showalter has been able to live anchored in her Mennonite faith while navigating as an adult in the wider world—including earning a PhD in American civilization, becoming an English professor, the president of a Mennonite college, and a foundation executive.

Mennonites arose as the followers of Menno Simmons (1496–1561), a Dutch priest who joined the Anabaptist movement.  Anabaptists, or rebaptizers, started as a group “who withdrew from both the Roman Catholic Church and the newly Protestant churches,” explains Showalter in her memoir’s glossary. “The practice of rebaptizing adults and of refusal to baptize children was seen as both a threat to the established church and the state.”

The rigorous twin pillars of the Mennonite faith, as Showalter experienced it near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were nonconformity and nonresistance. As well, she was trained to be a “beacon of kindness” for others.

Showalter’s mother, Barbara, also grew up on a Mennonite farm, surrounded by brothers. In lieu of a sister, she yearned for a Shirley Temple doll. In high school she was attractive, a buoyant singer, actress, and aspiring writer. She was late, at age 19, to assume her faith’s outward symbols, plain dress and, for women, a prayer covering. Though she would raise her daughter in the church, and affirmed farm life as her best and only life, she’d been a bold and ambitious young woman; her unrealized early ambitions “would incubate a yearning” in her daughter. For the chapter on her parents’ marriage, Showalter takes an epigraph from Carl Jung: “The greatest force in the life of any child is the unlived lives of their parents.”

Showalter’s father, Richard, tall and handsome, was the son of a farmer and likewise became a farmer. But his father had been harsh, and buying his family’s farm worsened his pain, for his father became his landlord. Richard loved farming, however, and indulged in a taste, shared by some others in his congregation, for fancy cars. When his daughter was in high school he bought her a sporty used Studebaker convertible—though it was black, which was “the kind of joke he liked.” She writes of him:

Daddy had no greater goal, after years of dating and driving eye-catching cars, than to become as successful a farmer as his father had been. There was a little spite, a little competition, and a lot of neediness in his yearning. He also wanted to hold his place in the unbroken Mennonite line of Hersheys who had always served the church.

I am heir of all these desires.

Forty families in her church knew her and the particulars of her young life. She basked in this attention, and sometimes shed a joyous tear when singing hymns. But she also loved pretty dresses, jewelry, and fancy hairstyles; joining the church was a choice she would make, but it wasn’t trivial. Immersed in a wholesome, loving, and idealistic community, she could not fail to notice its feet of clay. Its obsession with sinful pride might stifle the individual; its nonconformity to the world might mask within-sect conformity; its patriarchal and sex-segregated structure could devolve into simple sexism.

Yet its values also provided seventh-grader Shirley with the willpower to support John F. Kennedy as president in 1960—breaking with almost everyone she knew—and gave 17-year-old Shirley the courage to protest a new bishop’s stricter dress code for teenage girls. The older women of the church were also appalled by the man one Sunday when he refused communion to a girl whose dress or hairstyle offended him. Showalter watched the women “start to breathe in rhythm, their eyes wide” at the cruelty of his haughty act:

Without knowing it, we were participating in a crisis of leadership larger than our own congregation. The church’s visual separation from the world had been slowly eroding over decades as the culture around us became harder to resist. What had been taking place in an evolutionary manner for a long time only became obvious because of many who wanted to reverse the trend.

If the bishop could refuse the cup of communion to a baptized member of the church, what would come next?

What happened was that the reactionary bishop wasn’t happy, either, and moved on. (What happened eventually was that Showalter’s branch of the Mennonite Church relaxed its strictures regarding plain dress and prayer coverings.) Showalter’s outsider’s perspective, and her desire to find an authentic self within her religious tradition, grew as she moved through the mainstream school system; by high school, she was one of only three Mennonite girls among the 144 students in her graduating class. On the one hand a typical teenager, feisty and full of life, her Mennonite prohibitions included dancing, television, and movies. She sat out her gym class’s unit on dancing, watching with one other plain girl from wooden bleachers, feeling lonely.

Yet the complex threads of her upbringing met her own gifts to kindle perceptiveness and a scholarly bent:

I began to see that identity formation always includes an “us” and a “them.” It’s easy to see all sweetness in “us” and all sour in “them.”

Blush is rich in metaphor and works this sweet-sour one well—including in two chapters on food (and there are recipes in the back)—and is informed by deft use of historical context and enlivened by family photographs. Showalter even acknowledges Native Americans, those who lived on the land before her ancestors and whose stories were largely lost along with their villages, cleared with the forest to make space for settlers and their farms. Showalter explains in a blog post that all proceeds from the sale of Blush will go to support the Longhouse Project, the construction of a Native American dwelling by the Hans Herr Museum in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

If I have emphasized the tensions in Showalter’s account of a happy childhood, it’s because Blush shows how such pressures forged her as a person and as a leader—and because she deploys them so artfully as a writer. For all its impressive facets, Blush also achieves the virtues of a true memoir, conveying Showalter’s lived experience in the wisdom of her singular voice.

Next: An interview about Blush with Shirley Hershey Showalter.


  • Dear Richard, Thanks very much for covering this extraordinary-sounding memoir from one of your friends and frequent commenters. I’ve often enjoyed reading her comments on your site, and feel a kinship with her topic, even though I myself was not brought up in a strict faith community. Rather, I grew up in a state where so many people were of various strict sects that they managed to make more tolerant folk uncomfortable, and I grew up therefore with some of the same difficulties as Shirley, in awareness anyway. My own maternal grandparents belonged to a strict sect, and though they made a point of not inflicting their beliefs on others, it was difficult to show the love I felt for them because I was always aware of their difference from me; my fault, that, probably. But at any rate, it’s good to know that Shirley managed to overcome some of the hurdles before her and make her own selections among beliefs and practices; she seems to be a good example of how to be tolerant and decisive at the same time.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Victoria—and I hope Shirley will have time to respond to your thoughtful comment as well. Yes, Shirley has become a friend (that acknowledgment is in the Q&A part that I decided at the last minute to hold till Monday or Tuesday), and though I’ve never met her in person I feel like I know her. Especially after reading Blush and struggling in my review to do its rich content justice.

      I know what you mean about feeling the judgments of others, even if they are not making them overtly. It is my belief that we are designed to receive group messages, and in modern life this has become increasingly complicated because there’s so much noise in the system. This welter can create anger, opportunities, and confusion. Thus I believe Shirley’s memoir is an important testament from one who found her way between two worlds during an era of almost inconceivably fast change.

  • shirleyhs says:

    Hi, Victoria. I feel as though I’ve gotten to know you, too, right here in this space on Richard’s blog. Who says the internet is impersonal? I hope we all meet in person some day.

    Your comment about strict sects and the resulting sense of judgment is very interesting, and I hear the ring of truth in it. One goal I had in writing this book was to demystify and demythologize plain people. It can seem that they are all alike because they conform to certain rules. But not everyone outwardly conforming is doing the same inwardly. And some people under their traditional garb are just as curious about you as you are about them. Some. Not all. Personality plays a huge role. If it is your grandmother, you want her to be warm, inviting, and supportive. Maybe her sect teaches her not to be. And maybe her personality conforms to the teaching.

    I know what you mean about feeling judged. Once I forgot an event at my daughter’s nursery school. When we remembered to go, we got there just as others were leaving. My four-year-old daughter wept and wept. I tried to cheer her up by taking her somewhere special — McDonalds. :-(

    There was a group of Amish women there with their own children. They all looked happy. I felt judged. They weren’t judging me, but my daughter was. And my past was. I assumed that if I had not been at work all day long, and was home when my daughter got out of school, that I would have been a good mommy and remembered. That’s the script I still had playing in my head after ten years of being a professional and a mother at the same time.

    Glad you survived the strictness and created a space for your own tolerance in the midst of it.

    • Hi, Shirley. I really try to be tolerant now, even of those who don’t seem tolerant to me, because even though my grandmother would’ve done almost anything for me, she died when I was in the middle of comprehensive exams in graduate school, and I decided not to attend her funeral. Largely, this was because of extreme anxiety I was under about exams, and I couldn’t easily have excused myself from them (I was studying in Canada and my grandmother was in W.Va.), rules being fairly strict, but I’m not sure that my mother has found it easy to forgive me for putting career ahead of family, even though she understood my reasons. She spent her life as the main moral support of her mother’s and father’s old age, and even though she herself didn’t share their beliefs and wanted to make sure that we didn’t either, she also required us to respect them and not contradict their beliefs aloud. It’s a muddle, and I’ve often tried to think of something I could do to make it up to her, since my grandmother is now past recall. I later made a point of attending my grandfather’s funeral with my mom, but I’m wracking my brains sometimes to think of a family tradition she observed with her mother that I could observe with her. But guilt is guilt, and remorse is remorse, and sometimes I think on mature consideration that they’re just part of the baggage we carry with us, and have to accept. As you note, it’s a “script” we “having playing in our heads,” and I guess all we can do is try to be aware of it and meet it halfway without letting it destroy us.

  • Janice Gary says:

    Thanks for this review, Richard. I’ve been hearing about Shirley’s book for some time now (in your blog, in her comments and on other sites) and was glad for the chance to get to know it (and Shirley) better. Sounds fascinating. I’m adding it to my “Read” list.

  • Love the review, Richard, and agree with every word. Like you, Shirley and I became online friends. But I have had the good fortune of meeting her when she traveled through Baton Rouge with her husband. Meeting online friends can be awkward, but I felt like I’d known Shirley my whole life. She is a joy to be around. xo

    • Richard says:

      Thank you for the confirmation, Darrelyn. I find reviews so challenging to write, and Blush more than most—because I wanted to do justice to its rich content.

  • Darrelyn, you were an instant friend both online and in person. I owe you so much. Richard, Darrelyn told me the painful truth that the manuscript needed another revision when I didn’t want to hear it. I think that story might deserve its own blog post. :-)

    • Richard says:

      Definitely, Shirley. I hoped you would write about the editor you credit in your acknowledgments.

    • Shirley, no one ever wants to hear “another revision” when they think the book is done. I’m thrilled you listened and (with changes) the original opening is much more powerful. Not diluted. It’s one of my favorite beginnings, which Richard quoted in this post.

  • Richard, I’ve already read the book and loved it for all the same reasons as you. Even so, your eloquent review brought even more aspects into focus. Those of you who have not yet read BLUSH are ahead of the game for having key points mapped out.

    One element you didn’t include that stood out in neon to me was the Magic Elevator story that seemed to inform the entire book. I see Shirley’s quest to write this memoir as yet another ride down that rainbow to the safety of the homeplace in her soul.

    I plan to tell that Magic Elevator story to my grade school granddaughters when I see them next month, and I thank Shirley, for sharing it.

    • Richard says:

      You are right, Sharon. Another important aspect that got left on the cutting-room floor was the loss of Shirley’s baby sister.

    • Thanks, Sharon! Wow, my mother will love to read this words: “I see Shirley’s quest to write this memoir as yet another ride down that rainbow to the safety of the homeplace in her soul.”

      I actually considered calling the book The Magic Elevator at one point because I think that story has influenced all the children who listened to Mother tell it, especially when she made them the heroes. And since I was the first, I heard it most often.

      Please give those granddaughters an extra squeeze from me and my mother when you tell the story. I’m sure that landing in your back yard will be the best destination they can imagine after adventures of their own.

  • Mary Swartley says:

    You are so right, Richard, in naming the thrust of this memoir as the everlasting human conflict between communal obligation and individual desire which makes the story both universal and timeless. I especially like this way of thinking about Shirley’s story, but it could also be said of many other fortunate Mennonite girls if they could frame it this way.

    • Richard says:

      Thank you, Mary. To me, the honest tensions that Shirley acknowledged and traced are invaluable, in large part because she reconciled them so well. It can be done! At the same time, it’s a challenge almost anyone faces and is always working out.

    • Mary, so good to see your comment here. Richard has said it so well: the good fortune of having conflicts. We seldom see the fortune when we focus on the conflict. But it’s always there waiting for us when we are patient, have endured our sufferings, and maintain hope. “Steady fervor” is another name for this process. “Embracing the blush” is yet another.

  • Richard, I have just finished Blush and will be reviewing it on my book blog, Found Between the Covers, in the next few days. I cannot disagree with a single statement in your review about Shirley’s book and the tensions and conflicts she experienced. However, for me, a member of the Methodist Church growing up, despite the differences in polity in the two faiths there were limits set by my parents when it came to “worldly activities.” I strolled down memory lane with Shirley on many pages. What a beautifully written and enjoyable memoir which also provides a genuine and honest look at life as Mennonite. I hate to leave now because according to Shirley much can be learned here that will help my memoir writing efforts. But I really must start exploring your site!

  • shirleyhs says:

    Sherrey, yea, you found Richard’s site. I signed up to get email notifications from Richard long ago (right hand column) and I always learn something. Richard, Sherrey is doing great things on her blog also. She writes about healing and reviews books. She is also very generous in sharing the work of others.

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